Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A High Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes

Back in October, Kevin and I set out for a tropical honeymoon in Jamaica.  We planned on snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, exploring the island, and more.  Mother Nature, unfortunately, had different plans.  Instead of a week of sun, surf, and sand, we got Sandy.  The hurricane, which would later hit the East Coast of the United States, effectively shut down our resort and kept us holed up in our room.  Simultaneously, I came down with a wicked stomach virus and spent 24 hours in a ball on our bathroom floor.  You can read the whole cheery story on our personal blog, Napp Time.

All that to say, Jamaica does not exactly hold positive memories for me.  When I saw Richard Hughes' book on the 100 Best Novels list, I groaned inwardly and hoped his literary Jamaica would leave a better impression than my real life experience.

The story focuses on a group of children, mainly Emily Bas-Thornton.  Emily and her four siblings belong to British parents who have left their homeland to settle in the Jamaican colony.  This all transpires in the mid-1800s, when ships sailed across oceans for weeks at a time and horses pulled carts across the Jamaican mountains for days to reach a destination.

Early on, the story moves slowly.  Emily and siblings travel to visit the Fernandez family and their children.  While there, an afternoon at the beach becomes memorable when a small earthquake occurs.  Emily thinks with dismay that nothing so exciting will ever happen to her again.  Their return home, however, coincides with a ferocious hurricane.

(At this point, my opinion of Jamaica was settled.  Even imaginary circumstances in Jamaica involve hurricanes!)

The hurricane destroys their plantation home.  The children ride out the storm in a cellar, drunk on the rum passed around by adults attempting to remain calm.

After the storm, it is decided to send the children back to London, along with their Fernandez playmates.  The island is simply too dangerous.  Soon after setting out on their journey, their ship is taken by pirates.  The children inadvertently fall into their custody when the captain of their original ship leaves them behind, thinking them dead.

For me, here is where the real adventure begins.  The children and the pirates co-exist uncomfortably, each not truly understanding the other.  The children, though, are largely unaware of their ignorance.  They are subjected to highly adult situations, including death, murder, piracy, and even a hint of sexual abuse.  Yet, as children, they understand these things only from their still underdeveloped knowledge of the world.

The key to High Wind lies in this infantile perspective.  Their innocence and self-absorption commands their worldview.   Hughes does not tell the story directly from their viewpoint, thus allowing the reader some further understanding of the actual events taking place.  Even still, the whole story is painted with their emotions and perceptions of people and events.  Hughes spends significant time showing their emotional responses to the events surrounding them.  This gives a simple adventure story an air of magic and childlike belief, couple with the darkness of losing one's innocence.

Before starting on the 100 Best Novels list, I had never heard of Hughes, much less High Wind.  This, as it turns out, is exactly the sort of book I was hoping to find.  It is a novel rich in character and symbolism, while retaining an engaging plot.  In some ways - pirates, anyone? - it reminded me of a darker Peter Pan.  I suppose it was the sense of children doing adult things, but not quite understanding the significance of their actions.  I enjoyed the adventures of Emily and watching her unique coming of age, despite the reminder of Jamaican hurricanes.

Pages: 296
Date Completed: July 17, 2013

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